Outside the AngloBox: an Interview with Christopher Allen

by Tara Laskowski See all Guest Readers
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The Global Flash series was your brainchild. Can you talk about where the idea came from and why you think it’s important?

First of all, let me say how happy I am to finally be a father. I hope this baby takes off and succeeds, but I just want it to be happy. I’m thrilled to be reading submissions in German this week while our staff continues to read great submissions in English.

I’ve been thinking about promoting flash in other languages besides English for years—as have other editors in our community. Dave Clapper wanted to do something similar a long time ago at SmokeLong. And why not? If you look for flash fiction online in other languages besides English, you won’t find journals in their hundreds; you’d be lucky to find three. Is the concept of the online journal primarily an English language phenomenon? A couple of years ago there was a German journal online, but it disappeared fairly quickly. I’m sure there are others, and we’d certainly love to hear from them and their writers. Sand out of Berlin is an excellent journal—but it’s English.

As a person who doesn’t speak his mother tongue every day, I feel that telling stories outside the AngloBox is important to understand the world. Maybe I want to test and remix the recipe of what flash fiction means. We can’t do that without listening to foreign (to us) voices. SmokeLong, with our focus on diversity and inclusion, is a great venue for this series.

Can you talk briefly about the other guest editor translators currently looking for submissions and how you found them?

They are all experienced translators—first and foremost. Two came to us through referrals: Cecilia Llompart (Spanish) and Sinéad Quirke Køngerskov (Danish). I’ve known Michelle Bailat-Jones (French) for a while through Necessary Fiction. They have all graciously agreed to accept one great story and translate that story into English. Both the original and the translation will appear at SmokeLong. I hope writers in these languages will take advantage of this opportunity to show the Anglo flash fiction community the timbre of other voices. Submissions are open.

You are a world traveler, and you split your time among several different countries. What are some life lessons you’ve learned from seeing so many different parts of the world?

I’m a bit of an obsessed traveler, true. I’ve lived in Munich for more than two decades with a few years in London and now a spell in Dublin. I’m wildly fortunate to be able to travel often. I write a lot on planes.

Lessons. I’ve learned books of lessons, mostly how to behave in public—and mostly through behaving badly. It’s probably safe to say I grew up mentally and emotionally long after I grew up physically. One lesson—staying with the theme of language—is that to really understand someone, you have to listen without prejudice, without second guessing, without the interference of your own preconceptions. Never assume you know what someone means. Never finish someone’s sentence. The same goes for being a good editor.

Also on the subject of language: we need to shut up more. I’m infinitely more interested in hearing someone else’s take on life than expressing my own. I’m bored with people who aren’t curious, who don’t notice the extraordinary scenery around them. I’m fascinated by our world. Maybe that’s why I’m kind of quiet (except if you ask me to sing).

Can you talk a little about the process of translating? What are the biggest challenges, and what are the biggest delights?

Great question. I feel qualified to give an answer related only to my own experience with translating German to English. Translating creative writing is hard. Though English is a Germanic language, so many round German ideas just don’t fit into square English holes. I can’t imagine the difficulties translators have with, say, Hungarian. The cardinal rule: translate the German (in my case) so that it sounds natural in English. What a tall order. In my opinion, the translator must maintain the tone and voice of the original text while avoiding the awkwardness of a too-literal translation. This means that syntax and word choice are up for grabs. So much is lost in translation (it’s not just a saying). Humor is a bear. What’s funny in one language may fall flat in another. These are just a few of the challenges.

The delight: when I find exactly the right words, when I convey precisely what I think the writer feels. The translation is my own work separate in the end from the original. All writers have differences of opinion with their translators. If I meet the challenges I set for myself and I’m satisfied, I’m happy. And that’s all I really want.

What kind of story are you seeking for this series? Do you think the definition of what makes a “good” flash piece differs depending on what part of the world the writer is in, or is “good” flash universal?

Well, you know I like unconventional prose that doesn’t necessarily add up to a neat, crisply defined plot. As I’ve said a few times before, flash fiction is more about plumbing the moment. I love prose that shines on the sentence level, that troubles me, and that dares to do something with words that might not be for mass consumption.

I do think we will see a lot of different definitions of flash fiction if we continue this Global Flash experiment, and I think it’s important that writers know our “ever changing aesthetic” is open to new voices. The danger of our experiment is the temptation to judge stories based on our Anglocentric idea of what good flash is. I hope we’ll overcome this. In the end, my hope is that we come closer to understanding what good Global Flash is. If we listen.

About the Reader:

Christopher Allen is a translator, freelance editor and the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press). Allen’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Best Small Fictions,  [PANK], Indiana Review, Jellyfish Review, Longleaf Review and others. He is the co-editor of SmokeLong Quarterly.

About the Interviewer:

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.